During this election cycle, voters in 37 states will decide on 132 ballot measures. In eight states and the District of Columbia, ballot measures appear that could directly improve the quality of jobs. The United States currently faces a job quality crisis: nearly a third of workers struggle with low wages, more than half report having less say on their working conditions than they want, and over 60% have experienced or witnessed discrimination on the job. On Tuesday, voters will weigh in on three issues related to this crisis: minimum wages, collective bargaining rights, and unpaid, involuntary prison labor.
Decent pay is a cornerstone of a good job, yet the federal minimum wage of $7.25 has not been raised since 2009. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is even lower, having remained set at $2.13 per hour since 1991, with vast disparities at the state level. Three jurisdictions—Nebraska, Nevada, and the District of Columbia—will be voting on minimum wage measures this year. Nebraska voters will decide whether or not to incrementally increase the state minimum wage, currently at $9 per hour, to $15 by 2026. Nebraska would join nine other states and DC in committing to at least a $15 wage.
Washington, DC voters have the chance to eliminate the tipped minimum wage in favor of a one fair wage policy. If this initiative passes, tipped employees’ minimum wage in DC will rise from $5.35 per hour to the same minimum wage as non-tipped employees, $16.10 per hour. Tipping grew as a practice following the end of slavery, as businesses expected Black workers in service roles to work solely for tips. It has continued to fuel racial and gender inequalities in pay. In other states, eliminating a separate minimum wage for tipped workers has reduced poverty among these workers and shrunk gender and racial pay gaps without impacting employment in tipped industries.
Voters in Nevada will decide whether or not to increase the minimum wage to $12 per hour for all workers by July 1, 2024, regardless of what benefits an employer offers. Though the current minimum wage is set to rise to $12, employers offering health insurance are allowed to pay $1 less per hour. In practice, this exception has led to workers being unable to afford costly employer-sponsored health plans while earning below the minimum wage—illustrating the importance of considering the relationship between pay and benefits when defining good jobs.
The right to organize to negotiate with employers is another essential component of good jobs, and two states have constitutional amendments about the right to organize on this year’s ballot. Illinois’ proposed amendment to the state constitution would establish a constitutional right to collective bargaining and the ability to negotiate hours, wages, and working conditions, strengthening existing laws and signaling the state’s commitment to them. Illinois would follow Hawaii, Missouri, and New York in protecting collective bargaining in its constitution, while also going further; the amendment prohibits future laws that interfere with collective bargaining rights, including so-called “right-to-work” laws.
“Right-to-work” laws exist in 28 states and prohibit unions from collecting fees from workers who benefit from contract negotiations, reducing union resources and weakening their power. They are associated with lower wages, reduced benefits, and lower unionization. In contrast to Illinois, Tennessee has an amendment on this November’s ballot that would enshrine its current “right-to-work” law in its state constitution.
The proposed amendments in Illinois and Tennessee occur at a time when public support for unionization is higher than it has been in decades—and so are companies’ efforts to stop organizing. These two states propose very different paths forward: one which seeks to rebalance power between workers and employers and the other which tips the scales further in favor of large employers.
Unpaid Prison Labor
Although US labor law establishes a floor for job quality through basic rights and protections, these laws do not cover people working while incarcerated. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865, but it left an exception as punishment for a crime. Today, an estimated 800,000 people in the US are working while incarcerated, without the ability to refuse work or legal protections. With Black Americans incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans, involuntary prison labor is an urgent racial justice issue. This year, five states are voting to eliminate this exception in their state constitutions: Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont. They are among about 20 states whose constitutions contain exceptions allowing for involuntary servitude as punishment.*
If these measures pass, these states will follow Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska, which have eliminated all involuntary servitude since 2018. These state amendments represent a crucial first step in addressing the injustices of prison labor but do not translate to fair treatment or safe working conditions. Nationally, incarcerated workers are paid an average of 52 cents per hour, and states that have passed amendments banning involuntary servitude have not yet changed prison work rules to improve conditions. Basic labor protections remain a next step in the movement for fair working conditions for all.
At a time when only 44% of people report having a good job, these ballot measures represent a critical opportunity to impact labor policies directly and potentially improve job quality for millions. In addition to these specific issues, voters across the country will also be making choices about 435 representatives, 34 senators, 36 governors, and countless state, county, and local positions—each with their own track record and level of commitment to working people. Although we face a job quality crisis, we also face a moment of opportunity to vote for a better, brighter, and more equitable future.
*These states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Tweet The US faces a #jobquality crisis, and several ballot measures across the country could shape the future of work. In this blog, @shellysteward (@AspenFutureWork) and Amanda Fins (@AspenJobQuality) outline what’s at stake this #ElectionDay.
Tweet Workers are struggling with low wages, poor working conditions, and discrimination on the job. But #ElectionDay could mark a turning point for #jobquality. Learn more in this piece by @shellysteward (@AspenFutureWork) and Amanda Fins (@AspenJobQuality).
Tweet This #ElectionDay, #jobquality is on the ballot — from the minimum wage to collective bargaining to prison labor. Learn more from @shellysteward (@AspenFutureWork) and Amanda Fins (@AspenJobQuality) on the @AspenInstitute blog.
Tweet This #ElectionDay, voters in 8 states and DC will decide on ballot measures that impact #jobquality for millions. The @AspenInstitute’s @shellysteward and Amanda Fins offer their take on these crucial decisions.
The Future of Work Initiative aims to identify, develop, and amplify solutions that address the challenges of today while building toward a future in which workers are safe, empowered, and equipped to thrive in our changing world. The Future of Work Initiative is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.
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